Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Mr Ripley's Interview with Alexander Gordon Smith - Author of the Escape from Furnace Series

Welcome to Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books. Today, I’m very lucky to be interviewing one of my favourite writers Alexander Gordon Smith, who is the author, of a number of great books, The Inventors series, and the Escape from Furnace series. Thank you for agreeing to this interview - it's wonderful to have you on the blog today. Some of the questions, put to you are courtesy of the nice people on social media, thank you all for that!
That genre of books do you like to read? do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself? 
I love to read just about anything! I definitely prefer books with an element of horror or fantasy (it helps me escape!), but I think one of the most important things about being a writer is reading as much and as widely as possible. It's just part of your job, and you can learn so much by reading outside of your genre. Saying that, life is too short to read books you don't enjoy, so I've become pretty impatient – if I'm not enjoying a book after the first twenty pages I'll probably give up on it. That's pretty bad! But yes, I read mainly YA and horror, plus a bit of fantasy. Right now I've just finished Anything That Isn't This, by Chris Priestly (which was amazing!), and am part-way through several things including Scott Smith's The Ruins (terrifying!), and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (beautiful!). 

What scares you?
Everything! It's why I write horror. I love horror, it's an incredibly powerful genre because it can help you overcome your fears and worries. Writing about something you are afraid of gives you ownership of it, it gives you control. It's remarkably empowering, and that's why I always recommend it to anyone. It's where I get most of my ideas from, by sitting down and writing a list of my worst fears, then adding 'what ifs' to those fears in order to explore and develop them. The Escape From Furnace series came from my fear of getting into serious trouble as a teenager (I was a bit of a hellraiser), my new series, The Devil's Engine, was inspired by my asthma, and the terror of not being able to breathe. Fears change as you go through life, and right now I guess my worst ones include something happening to my kids, plus forgetting how to write! I'm also terrified of slugs and porcelain dolls...

Have you ever used contemporary events or stories “ripped from the headlines” in your work? 

Not really. I write horror stories, and I see them as a kind of escapism – not just for the reader, but for me too. The headlines are a real-life horror story every single day, and it can get a bit too much. Horror is about being scared, yes, it's about that thrill. But horror, especially YA horror, is also about hope. I think that's at the heart of all good horror stories. Hope, humanity, and heroism. It's why the genre is so popular with younger readers, and it's certainly why I love it. So I don't really look to the outside world for inspiration in this way. Besides, I hate research, and real world stories need so much of it. I'm too lazy!

How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
I don't develop plots at all, but I do spend a lot of time developing characters. Characters are the heart and soul of any story, they need the most work. And characters are plot. If you can create realistic, believable characters that have a life story of their own, that have fears and dreams and loves and hopes, then their response to external events becomes the story. It isn't a case of you herding your characters from plot point A to plot point B and so on, it's more about you throwing them into the story and then trying to keep up with them as they negotiate their changing world. The idea of your characters writing the story for you is a bit of a cliche, but it's a cliche for a reason – it's true. So I'll spend days asking the characters questions, probing their psyches, exploring their histories. It takes a long time, but it's a fantastic investment because once you know the characters, the books do kind of write themselves. Google Proust's Questionnaire and start asking your characters some of those questions – you'll see how easy it is to turn them from vague outlines into (almost!) living, breathing people.

Did your books turn out the way you expect them too? (Question by G.A. Taylor.)
No! Well, sometimes. It's hard to say, because as I said before I don't really plan, and I certainly don't know what the end will be. I'm two books into a trilogy right now with The Devil's Engine, and I have literally no idea what is going to happen in the third and final part. None whatsoever. Which can be a bit worrying because the first two are already pretty much at the printers. I don't worry, though. I had the same thing with Furnace and that worked out fine! I am a huge believer in the power of the human brain to tell stories. I may not consciously know what's going to happen in a book, but I've spent so long living inside the world of the story, I've spent so much time with these characters, that I know my unconscious is working on solving the problems. The same way, I guess, that it helps solve problems in your actual life when you're asleep, by dreaming. That part of your brain doesn't necessarily know that the fictional problems aren't real (or maybe they are real, because the imagination is incredibly convincing), so it works just as hard to solve them. I know that when I start writing, the book will guide me. That sounds remarkably pretentious, but I don't know how else to say it!

How much involvement have you had with the graphic content of your books? 
I've been pretty lucky with my editors in that they haven't objected to much at all. I think I've only ever had them ask for one scene to be removed! Horror can be horrible, and yes there is gore in my books, but a reader's imagination is far more adept at creating horrors than a writer's, so it's always best to leave the work to them. I like to set the scene, sprinkle a few details, and then let them do the rest! 

What do you think makes a good story?
Wow, that's a tough question. There are so many elements that make up a good story, but it goes beyond that, a good story is more than just the sum of its parts. It's almost impossible to define a good story, but as a reader I need to fall in love with the character first and foremost. If I can do that, then I will follow them anywhere, I'll go through hell and back with them, just to find out what happens at their end of their story. If the characters are right, then it almost doesn't matter about the plot – like I said before, the characters are the plot. Again, as a reader, I want a story that picks me up and doesn't put me down until the end. It's why I love horror, because you have to keep reading, you have to find out what happens. I don't want to be able to breathe until I've turned that last page. It's what I try to do in my books too. Oh, and have fun! You can usually tell a good story by whether the author has had fun writing it – I mean, it's hard work, don't get me wrong, but an author should love the story, they should want to know what happens next. If I'm not feeling that way about a story, I won't be able to finish it. 

What do you think has the most impact on your reader - opening line or closing chapter/line? (Question by 
Bea Collyer)  
The closing line, for sure. The opening line is important, don't get me wrong, it's the hook that pulls people into the book. But it's just an introduction, it's the first step on that adventure, quickly forgotten. The last line is how we leave you, it's how we say goodbye. The last line is the one that will be going around and around in your head for days, hopefully. It might be there forever. There is something incredibly powerful, and poignant, about that last line. It's always bittersweet, because even if the book ends happily it's still a goodbye. It might be the last we ever hear from these characters. So yes, that closing line has so much impact, it's very important – and very, very hard to write.

What's the best word your editor has advised you to take out? (Question by Jim Carrington)
So many! Each book of mine always seems to have a word that I use again and again. With one, I remember, it was 'realised'. I was saying it on every page. He realised, she realised. I hadn't even noticed I was doing it. Adverbs always go, of course. Not all of them, but most. They are clumsy words, but I can't seem to stop myself using them. In my latest book I was overusing 'okay', the characters were constantly asking each other if they were okay. They were being chased by demons and monsters and enemy soldiers for most of the book, though, so it seemed like a good thing to be asking! The most valuable thing I have been asked to take out… Probably unnecessary actions. Things like 'He turned, then walked to the door.' 'He walked to the door' is so much quicker, and so much better. People always seem to be turning in books. Stop turning, people!

Are you currently involved in any writing projects?
I'm always writing something. I love writing, it's where I feel completely relaxed and happy. Starting a new book is like opening the door on a brand new adventure, not knowing where it will lead, or who I'll meet there. It's an incredible feeling, addictive. Right now I've got four books on the go, all in early stages. I tend to start quite a few projects at once, then see which one has got the most pull, which one I'm most interested in. I'll be starting the last book in the Devil's Trilogy soon, but there's a new one I have just started, a YA sci-fi, and I'm planning to finish that for Nanowrimo – whether I do or not is another matter! It's something a bit new for me, but I'm really enjoying it. I finished my first adult thriller / horror this year and my agent is currently sending it out, which is exciting! I'm trying to start a new adult horror as well, so I have something else in the pipeline. Maybe fifty percent of books I start never make it past 10,000 words, but hopefully these ones will! 

Will you ever win Mr Ripley's Book Cover Wars?
I hope so!! I love the cover wars, and I am determined to win one day. Just so long as I'm not in the final again Thomas Taylor again...

Where can I buy your books? (Question by Tom Easton)

Everywhere! Most book shops will have them, or will order them, and they're everywhere online too. 

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